Man Climbs 103 Stories with a Mind-Controlled Prosthetic Leg

By Ashley P. Taylor | November 5, 2012 3:24 pm

bionic limb

On Sunday, amputee Zac Vawter climbed 103 stories of the Willis Tower, the tallest building in the Western hemisphere, using a prosthetic limb he controlled with his thoughts.

Many prosthetics work using myoelectric devices, where the limb, such as this bionic hand, moves in response to muscle contractions. But since each muscle contraction can control only one motion, the range of motions is limited. To get more nuanced control of prosthetic limbs, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which sponsored the indoor climb-a-thon Vawter took part in and outfitted him with the leg, is working on developing thought-controlled prosthetics. To make the leg work, nerves from Vawter’s hamstring were wired to the prosthetic, which was designed by Michael Goldfarb at Vanderbilt University.

The Institute has been providing thought-controlled arms to patients for a few years, according to a release. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is also testing a mind-controlled arm, where a chip implanted in the brain transmits signals to a prosthetic limb.

Mind-controlled doesn’t always mean faster, though: There are leg prosthetics out there that let amputees speed along without needing mental input, most famously Flex-Foot Cheetahs, the lower limb that allowed an amputee to outperform able-legged competition in the 2012 Olympics. That prosthetic is more along the lines of a springy, athletic peg leg. But for the average user, some delicacy of control might be preferable to record-breaking speed.

Image via the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • John Lerch

    It was really upsetting that that guy from S Africa got to compete. I’m all for competition for all; but in this case the wishy-washy Left (whom I don’t usually condemn) said his prosthetic didn’t give him any advantage. They didn’t compare his times before and after his tragedy to prove that; they just said “trust me”.

  • David_42

    Maybe you should do a little research before spouting an opinion. Pistorius was born without fibulas, making the before and after comparison you demand impossible. His best time in 400-meters is almost a second less than the record. That means he is competitive, but just barely.

  • Brian Too

    Why is the matter of who qualifies for the Olympics, stereotypically reduced to a Left versus Right issue? What is the basis for that statement at all?

    And if it must be politically charged, why for instance isn’t the Right “at fault”? For, I dunno, forcing everyone to be the same? Yeah, that’s it, the political right is engaged in a conspiracy to do away with the Paralympic Games! And they are starting with a single Track and Field athlete!

    It’s nonsense of course, but it makes exactly as much sense as @1. John Lerch’s argument.

  • Uli from Germany

    What means “stories”? I thought the word is “stairs”, I could not find an explanation in dictionary.

  • psweet

    @4 — stories in this case refers to floors of a building, so 103 stories would be close to 400 meters. Frankly, I don’t think I could do that with two real legs!

  • TJ

    Uli, it is a reference to each level or “floor” of a building.”
    Example: That building is 15 stories high

  • Alex

    @Uli, that’s because everyone spells it wrong – the real word is “storey” which pluralises to “storeys”, and that’s where you want to look in the dictionary.

    “Money” gets the same treatment, people are always writing “the monies will be collected…”

  • Mike Haxton

    John Lerch, please don’t inject politics here. I get enough of that crap on FaceBook.

  • Ruby from NJ

    There is some confusion about “stories” and “stairs.” One might have to climb up two sets of stairs to reach each floor or story. “Storey” is the British spelling. I cringe every time I read or hear anything about “monies,” which I ridicule as a rhyme for “ponies.” There is a rule for pluralizing words like “money,” “monkey,” “key,” et cetera; but Americans don’t follow it. If the y is preceded by an e, simply add s.

  • Alan Curry

    Storey is a British word that doesn’t exist in America, like cheque. Story and check are good enough for us.

  • geack

    One other bit of info re: the sprinter’s leg – the prosthetic used in the Olympics stores and returns significantly less energy than a typical sprinter’s leg structure. It’s simply less efficient than a natural leg, and thus provides no artificial advantage. That’s one of the reasons its use was allowed by the committee. While such decisions revolve around rights and fairness, they’re not made in a technical vacuum, and there was no refusal to study the issue or asking for uncritical acceptance of an assertion.


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